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Identity, goaltending could set Stars up for success in playoffs

Dallas' attention to detail at the right time has made it one of the league's best teams over the past month

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

If you want to convince yourself that things happen for a reason, the 2018-19 Stars could be your team.

While Dallas is on its third coach in three seasons, the process of learning from those coaches could have put this team in a unique place.

While assistant coach Rick Bowness may have been disappointed by the restructuring of the coaching staff that moved him out of Tampa last summer, he might be the perfect coach at the perfect time for the Stars.

And while there has been a ton of adversity -- both external and self-inflicted -- it may have created a dedication to detail and identity that has made Dallas one of the best teams in the NHL over the past month.

"This hasn't been an easy season in so many ways, but I think that's a good thing," said general manager Jim Nill. "I think we've really fought through and learned so much. This is the best hockey league in the world, and the playoffs are a different world, and I really feel we are in a good place right now. I think the season has put us here."

 

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The Stars finished the year second-best in the NHL in goals allowed at 2.44 per game. That's an improvement on seventh last season (2.77) and 29th (3.17) the year before. That run coincides with three different coaches.

Lindy Ruff was finishing a four-year run of offensive hockey in 2016-17, Ken Hitchcock tried to reset the defense in 2017-18, and Jim Montgomery took over this season as a rookie head coach.

The battle to get through all of that has been difficult, but it also can be seen as a journey that has hardened the players and exposed them to different kinds of hockey.

"We've obviously gone through a lot with three coaches in three years. It takes an adjustment period, but he's done a good job of putting it all together and finding things in everyone's individual game and in the team game to bring us to a new level," center Tyler Seguin said of Montgomery.

Seguin said he doesn't like to compare coaches, but added that going through Ruff, Hitchcock and Montgomery can be seen as a positive.

Video: Previewing the Stars vs. Predators First Round series

"It's been a good mix," Seguin said. "Lindy was a big offensive coach, and that started some offense for some guys in this room, and then Hitch came in and was pretty defensive, and then Monty and Bones (Bowness) put it all together. I wouldn't sit here and say we're this good defensively without the help of Hitch, because he's a big reason why we're this good defensively.

"But Monty is a big reason we've been able to put it all together. It's all worked out and now we want to be a postseason team for the next few years here."

Adding Bowness also has been a blessing. The 64-year-old has coached in more than 2,000 NHL games, and has helped the Stars build a defensive base. His experience and personality has been the perfect complement to Montgomery, who welcomes discussion on all matters.

"It's important that they feel confident they can express their opinions, and it's important that they know I do listen," Montgomery said. "For the staff, I think they're really comfortable now. The growth on our staff has been incredible. We bounce ideas off each other now and nobody is afraid to throw out anything to see if it might work. It's an open dialogue."

Montgomery admits the journey hasn't been easy. He came in with ideas of puck possession and a relentless game in which the Stars won every analytics category and simply overwhelmed opponents. But he was greeted by injuries to Stephen Johns, Marc Methot, John Klingberg and Martin Hanzal, and he had to adjust.

While using 14 different defensemen, he and his coaching staff had to find the right mix and the right way to play hockey.

"The different coaches thing is a valid point, and one I've seen," Montgomery said. "It's the third coach in three years with different systems, and it takes players a while to see results and believe in what they are doing. The more you change, the harder it is, I think, and these players had polar opposite coaches. So now I come in and think that I'm somewhere in the middle, and I think that will work, but it's still a process.

"You have to go through it day by day."

That day by day became a frustrating mix of inconsistency, and it affected everyone from management to the coaching staff to the players. There was anger and finger-pointing and lack of cohesion. But during a 10-day mid-season break, Montgomery stepped back, reassessed and came back with a new game plan.

"I was just so frustrated with the inconsistency," Montgomery said. "I had meetings with Jim Nill, I had meetings with the players, and I decided that if we wanted to get to the playoffs and then succeed in the playoffs, we needed to be a relentless, defensive team. That's what the players wanted, too, I think."

Video: Montgomery looking forward to home playoff games

And that's what happened.

The Stars slowly started to bring the shots on goal total down, started to eliminate quality scoring chances against, and started to better support their goalies. They also started to stop stressing about their inability to score goals, and began to take a patient approach.

They still are the slowest starting offensive team in the NHL by a long shot with 39 first-period goals (Nashville is 30th with 53), but they stopped letting it bother them. If the score was 0-0 deep into the second period (as it was Saturday in a 3-0 win over Minnesota), the Stars simply stayed on their mission. Sticks in the lane, support your teammate, win puck battles.

It's a simple game plan -- and maybe that's why it's working.

"Most games, you look down and we're not giving up that many odd-man rushes," Montgomery said. "Defensively, our forwards are really working back hard. We're going to make mistakes, everyone makes mistakes, but most of the time we're making less mistakes than our opponents."

 

[FIRST-ROUND SCHEDULE: Stars to open postseason with Game 1 on Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. CT]

 

And that can become a really comforting security blanket for the entire team. The players now know this system works, and so they want to play it even harder.

"That builds consistency, that builds trust, that builds unity," Montgomery said. "If we're all on the same plan and we all believe it's working, that makes things a lot easier."

Of course, they wouldn't be anywhere without the goaltending.

Ben Bishop set a new franchise record for save percentage at .934, and was second in the NHL in goals against average at 1.98. Anton Khudobin finished 15th in GAA at 2.57 and eighth in save percentage at .923.

"They've been our MVPs, but I think we've done a good job making their job easier as the season has gone along," Nill said. "But, bottom line, our goaltending has been outstanding and it has helped carry us this year."

Video: DAL@VGK: Bishop spins, makes no-look blocker save

Nill made a commitment to Bishop with a six-year contract in 2017. He then added Khudobin as a free agent before this season. The duo has become the best tandem in the league, but they do it in different ways.

Bishop is listed at 6-foot-7, Khudobin at 5-11. Bishop likes to play his angles, stay deep in his net and let the puck hit him. He likes to take advantage of his size. Khudobin is more aggressive in attacking the shooter and in getting to rebounds and loose pucks. He likes to take advantage of his quickness.

"It's so much fun working with them, because they do things in such a different way," said Stars goalie coach Jeff Reese. "But I think the bottom line is they both have hockey IQs off the chart, and that allows them to anticipate the game and adjust to the game, and I think it also helps them understand each other very well."

Now, when people are looking at match-ups for the entire Western Conference playoffs, they often are giving the goaltending edge to the Stars. Khudobin won two games at Nashville this season, so he could realistically be called upon at some point in this first-round series. That's an advantage a lot of teams don't have.

"I think they play off each other and push each other," Montgomery said. "Every time we do a competition game at the end of practice, they're both really into it, and they both want to win."

And that's another part of this team's identity. Everyone believes in the system, everyone believes in the goalies, and that makes this a very tough team when you start talking about playoff hockey.

"We're big on attention to detail, and I think that really is paying off now," Nill said. "If you watch our team, we do things the right way. I think we're a good team, I think we have become a good team."

And at just the right time.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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